Ad Watch: Wonga

At least they seem to have jettisoned the creepy puppets.

Wonga, that denizen of the modern age, has branched out. No longer just providing desperate people short term loans at stupidly high interest rates, with the help of a series of disturbingly lifelike granny puppets, they are now turning their hand to sorting out the UK's flagging business sector as well. Nice of them. Loans of £3,000 to £10,000 will be available for terms of between one and 52 weeks to viable business clients. Appropriately, a new advert campaign is needed to spread the word (just in case all the negative articles in the press didn't do the job quite well enough). Lo and behold, the buses of London are adorned with Wonga adverts.

To be fair, compared to the frankly terrifying old people grooving in an old people's home mysteriously well equipped with DJ-ing accessories and hope, these adverts are fairly inoffensive. They suffer terribly from what is known as the Innocent Smoothie disease, greeting the viewer with a friendly upbeat tone that masks the sad fact that they are about to mug you of 4,214 per cent APR, or of £2 for a bottle of mushed up fruit. But this is business, people. So the adverts are black, as opposed to Wonga's usual colour palate of friendly, non repossessing your house royal blue. Black is serious, a good colour for business, which is also serious. It doesn't get more nuanced than that.

The slogans are even better.

“Our branch address? Wongaforbusiness.co.uk”

“Loans 24/7 because business isn't 9-5”

“Business loans: think outside the bank”

Clever, aren't they? Notice how they take a well known business slogan and gently subvert it. It's because they're innovative. As the chief executive said in a recent interview with the Guardian, the company wants to "innovate around the edges”, acting as “the Amazon of financial services.” And why wouldn't you want to be known as that? It's not as if Amazon ever did anything a bit dodgy.

The latest Wonga news is that they have been warned by the Office of Fair Trading about their “aggressive” debt collection, after sending threatening letters and accusing customers of being fraudsters. Not so fluffy now. They are also getting involved in promoting financial literacy in schools, an area that is admittedly much wanting, but one that isn't an obvious move for a company reviled for its irresponsible lending. Indeed, it seems like not a day goes by when the company isn't in the news. Maybe they didn't even need to pay for those bus ads. Still, at least they seem to have jettisoned the creepy puppets.

They say: "Young, entrepreneurial companies represent our best hope of a recovery, yet many are struggling because they can't get quick access to the credit that they need to cope with everyday challenges”

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.